Zero Waste Cat Toys

Have you ever noticed that cat toys are all made of plastic, come wrapped in plastic, and disappear never to return shortly after? Well, maybe you don’t have a cat, or you have a large stash of Dr. Pussum’s, or you grow your own ‘nip…but I’ll wager that most cat owners have a lot of plastic toys that are either lost or never used.

Chandler checks out his new toy.

Chandler checks out his new toy while LO waits her turn (not so) patiently.

As I was going through my sock collection the other day, I discovered a stray that hasn’t had a mate in years…yet I still keep it (is this a form of grief?). I also had a bag of catnip sitting around, so I emptied it into the sock, tied a knot, and handed it over to the fiends. They couldn’t keep their paws off it.

So happy.

So happy.

I have found that cats don’t like store-bought toys as much. They’d rather play with an old sock, a box, an old shoelace…and why should we feel the need to get them something “fancier”? If you are cutting down on your own possessions, why not donate your old cat toys to a shelter and keep only the toys your kitties really love?

How to Respect Pedestrians and Be a Respectful Pedestrian

I have spoken before about my walking commute to and from campus. It is truly something I look forward to every day, mostly because it gives me time to be in (relative) nature and essentially meditate while moving. Unfortunately, I occasionally find my calm contemplation interrupted by motorists who are hurrying about their day with little care for who they mow over on their way. Fortunately, the majority of the people I encounter are kind, courteous, and respectful. But a lot of people do things that I am sure they do not realize are extremely threatening and rude to pedestrians. Similarly, some pedestrians do not follow general etiquette, endangering themselves and annoying motorists. So here is a list I made of things that both motorists and pedestrians can do to make everybody’s lives a little more peaceful.

"How fast do you think he was going?!" "Oh, about 2 squirrels per minute."

“How fast do you think he was going?!”
“Oh, about 2 squirrels per minute.”

How to Respect Pedestrians and Be a Respectful Pedestrian

If you are in a vehicle: Stop at a crosswalk if you see someone waiting. Especially if it is pouring rain – you are in a warm, dry car, and they are likely getting soaked. Don’t expect them to hoof it – they have the right of way and not all disabilities are visible. Especially do not inch forward as though you are likely to run them over if they do not hurry up. If you have this kind of sentiment, you need a serious attitude adjustment.

If you are on foot: Use crosswalks. Do not leap out into the road unless a car has suitable distance to stop. Sure, you have the right of way, but vehicles cannot stop on a dime. Do not dawdle when you cross. Do not expect to be seen at night, even with high-visibility clothing on.

If you are in a vehicle: Try to avoid stopping in crosswalks. Do not try to turn as quickly as you can to avoid having to wait for a pedestrian, thereby making the pedestrian feel like you would rather run them over than wait.

If you are on foot: If a car is stopped in a crosswalk, say at the end of a road waiting to turn, make it clear that you intend to walk around behind them so that they can turn more promptly. Make eye contact (and if you’re in Maine, secure a wave) before crossing in front of a car that is waiting to turn. Chances are they will not see you otherwise.

If you are in a vehicle: Try to avoid honking at people you know unless you are certain they know your car. A wave or an “I saw you walking today!” phone call are preferable. If you don’t know them, then do not honk at them unless somehow your honk will save their life. Honking will likely scare the ever-living sh*t out of a pedestrian if they are anything like me. This is in the same category of “do nots” as catcalling, throwing bottles, and generally hollering. Find something else to do with your time.

If you are on foot: …I’m not sure there is anything you can do to avoid this. Some people are just rude, I guess.

If you are on foot: Use the sidewalk if there is one available. If there isn’t, walk on the side of the road that is against the flow of traffic. You will be more visible to cars this way, and they will likely give you a wide berth.

Really, what it comes down to, is try to be compassionate. If a car nearly runs me over in its haste to turn right, I allow myself the initial annoyance and then try to explain to myself that perhaps the occupant’s spouse was in labor or some similar emergency. If you find yourself late for an appointment and racing down the street to try to beat the light, try to keep in mind that the person waiting at the crosswalk also has places to go and things to do. Your objective may seem the most important to you at the time – we all get stuck in this mindset – but you may find that taking the time to view and treat others with compassion lessens the number of annoyances in your life.

Is there anything you wish pedestrians/motorists did differently? Weigh in on the discussion in the comments below!

The Meat-Eating Vegetarian

Okay, so I realize that being a “meat-eating vegetarian” is an oxymoron, but it seems to best describe my diet right now. I eat mainly vegetarian, except for meals with friends (Thanks for the burger, Tony! It was delicious and I didn’t die!) and local meat that I can find at the farmer’s market or our Natural Living Center. I can’t remember how much I’ve babbled about The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but I figured I may as well start walking the talk and focus on eating local, grass-fed, cage-free, non-CAFO meat, eggs, cheese, etc.


Pardon the rather awkward close-up of my thumb.

Thankfully, Maine is delightfully full of eggs, cheese, and meat if you know where to look for it. Actually, when it comes to cheese, it’s stupidly easy to find local gems – Hannaford (at least the one in Old Town – I find the Bangor one rather lacking) labels its cheese with their special “local” sticker. Many of them come from Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, and you really can’t find a better cheese. There are also some goat cheeses that come from the coast, and the farmer’s market has a stand with some amazing “bevre” (bovine chevre, which perhaps I would love for their clever name, but fortunately it is also the best soft cheese in the state).

Local eggs are also quite easy to find – last week, finding myself eggless when I was mid-cookie-batch, I ran down to “The Store” downtown and found a case full of eggs that were from just down the road.

This particular find, A Wee Bit Farm, makes pork sausage that is close-your-eyes-and-moan good (is that weird? maybe). The best part? We can buy it at the NLC, and it’s surprisingly inexpensive ($6 for almost a lb), especially if you view meat as a luxury, as we do. Another best part is that it’s processed at the Herring Bros., which is a butcher in Guilford, ME that I have driven by more times than I can count. My sister has a great story about driving to the slaughter house instead of the retail store…but we’ll save that for another time.

Wine: part of a complete dinner

Wine: part of a complete dinner

Anyway, I’ve mentioned before that I’m pretty iron-poor, and even though I eat a lot of dark, leafy green vegetables and beans, it’s nice to get some meat in my veins every once in awhile. For this meal, I just sauteed up the sausage (squeezed out of the casing), drained off the fat, and added a jar of marinara sauce (I would have made my own, but alas…time does not grow on trees). I served it over whole wheat pasta with a little parmesan and a yes-there-is-too-much-dressing broccoli salad. It was a perfect example of a meal where the freshness and quality of the ingredient made the dish. I don’t find it hard to imagine why chefs always demand range-fed meat.

Where Do My Groceries Come From?

I hope to make this type of post a series – this week was easy because it was a lean grocery shopping week (too lean, in fact). We’ll see if I have the time to do it next time!
Grocery1. Toilet paper

Origin: Unknown

Waste: Paper wrapping (recyclable)

2. Kikkoman soy sauce

Origin: The company is based out of Wisconsin, but who knows where it was actually made?

Waste: Plastic top (landfill), bottle (recyclable)

3. Little Notch Bakery 7 grain bread

Origin: Southwest Harbor, ME (60 miles)

Waste: Plastic bag – will be used for kitty poops

4. Kate’s unsalted butter

Origin: Old Orchard Beach, ME (160 miles)

Waste: Paperboard outer packaging (recyclable), foil around butter (? can I recycle this? Usually I just landfill it)

5. Pineland Farms jack cheese

Origin: New Gloucester, ME (125 miles)

Waste: Plastic packaging (Terracycle?)

6. Eggs

Origin: Waldoboro, ME (85 miles)

Waste: None! Local farmers will reuse the carton.

7. Garlic

Origin: “Local” (I assume this means somewhere in Maine, but I didn’t write it down)

Waste: Compost.

8. Semi-sweet chocolate chips

Origin: ???

Waste: None. Purchased in bulk.

9. Plain yogurt

Origin: Frankfort, ME (25 miles)

Waste: None. The jar can be returned for deposit and the farm will reuse it.

10. Honey

Origin: Sangerville, ME (50 miles)

Waste: Either recyclable OR I can try to see if they will take it back.

Number of local items: 7 out of 10

Number of items destined for the landfill: Maybe 4 – plastic soy sauce top, foil butter wrappers (unless I can recycle them?), plastic bag (full of kitty poops, but even so), and cheese packaging (unless I can Terracycle it).

Toxicity Curiosity

When I first found out about Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group’s database of cosmetic chemicals and products, I spent a lot of time searching through it with my jaw on the floor. It turns out that most of the products I use are fairly toxic. The database includes things like skin care, hair care, and oral care, so it is pretty much possible to examine everything you use for your daily routine, and even if you can’t find the product, you can still search the ingredients in the product to examine their toxicity.

When I started searching Sean’s stuff, I discovered that the fragrance in everything he uses is around an 8 on the toxicity scale (which ranges from 0 to 10) – yikes. His initial reaction was, “So what? I’m not eating it.” This tends to be most people’s reactions – and mine, too – but then I started paying attention to my movements and interactions with the products I use. For example, sometimes I chew my hair – well, there’s a direct route for shampoo into my body – and other times I’ll eat something right after putting on hand cream. Yuck. Additionally, many of the products we use end up washing down a drain, where somebody has to deal with them, and most toxic chemicals are neither regulated nor possible to remove from our drinking water. Couple this with the fact that cancer happens to even the most chemical-conscious people and it is clear to see that we have a problem.

I don’t intend to chuck everything I use immediately, because that would be wasteful, but I do intend to find less-toxic replacements for after I use them up. Skin Deep is also an excellent resource for finding replacements, and they also have an app that allows you to examine products before you buy them.

This is a screenshot that I stole from the EWG Skin Deep website.

This is a screenshot that I stole from the EWG Skin Deep website.

Below is a list of the products I use and some possible replacements I have found. Links go to the Skin Deep page and numbers after the links give their toxicity rating.

Hair Care

What I use:

Suave Shampoo5

L’Oreal Everstrong Sulfate-Free Shampoo, Conditioner – both 5

Possible replacements:

Soap for Goodness Sake Shampoo & Body Bar0

I am especially excited about Soap for Goodness Sake (SGS) because they have the option of no-plastic shipping, and you can opt to order your soap without a label for a reduction in price. Seriously, this sounds great. Plus, Sean has had good luck with his Lush shampoo bar, so I’m really looking forward to trying their less-toxic version. Also, a two-in-one option is so exciting because it consolidates my clutter even more : )

Body Wash/Shaving

What I use:

Dove Sensitive Skin Unscented Bar Soap2

Method Moisturizing Body Wash5

Possible replacements:

The same SGS Shampoo & Body Bar as above – o

No poo (vinegar and baking soda) – 0

TMI Note: I shave in the shower, and therefore just use soap rather than bothering with actual shaving cream. I am a hippie in a two-and-a-half-year relationship, though, so maybe this isn’t what you do. Regardless, there are some great ultra-foamy, nontoxic shaving bars out there – search Skin Deep to find some!

Skin Care

What I use:

St. Ives Intensive Healing Hand Cream - 5

Eucerin Original Healing Eczema Care2

The 2 makes me a little nervous in spite of its happy green color…but I’ll probably keep this around for my poor, cracked, Maine winter hands.

Cetaphil Daily SPF 15 Facial Moisturizer3

Banana Boat Sport SPF 304

Neutrogena Oil-Free Grapefruit Acne Wash7

This one is especially deplorable because the “exfoliating beads” are made of plastic. Oh boy, more tiny bits of plastic to contaminate our water…

Possible replacements:

Homemade lotion0

I can get beeswax in bulk and oil in glass bottles, so this seems like the best zero waste option. Whether or not it will fulfill my moisturizing needs is another thing. Chances are, I will need to really commit to finding other ways to comfort myself besides hot showers in the winter, because those wreak havoc on my skin (to the extent that I can’t sleep for the itchiness).

Loving naturals SPF 30 sunscreen1

Okay, it comes in a plastic bottle, but I rarely even use up sunscreen bottles before they separate (i.e. it would have a long life in my house). The big question with sunscreen is whether you want your vitamin D or to avoid cancer. Probably both, but to be on the safer side, it’s probably a good thing to slather on (after your 10 minutes of vitamin-D-synthesizing exposure). I’ll let you know if I find a non-plastic-packaged kind (and if you know of one, please let me know!).

Enkido Foaming Facial Cleanser or similar SGS – 0 (maybe, see note below)

I find that taking a multiple vitamin keeps my skin pretty clear, which is unfortunate, because I wish my diet would do that for me. Unfortunately, until I figure that out, I’m stuck taking a vitamin. I do find that, now that I’m no longer in that awkward teen stage, bar soap works fine for a quick facial scrub. Those of us with worse skin, however, might wish to look into facial cleansers like the one above.

Oral Care

What I use:

Tom’s of Maine Peppermint Toothpaste1


Possible replacements:

SGS or homemade tooth powder - 0

Chances are this will take some serious getting used to, and I can recycled the Tom’s of Maine packaging through Terracycle, so I might continue with the (unfortunately plastc and Colgate-owned) ToM for now.

Chances are, I will either try to stop using mouth wash or just use it sparingly – I basically just use it to soak my retainer (yep, I still have one), and honestly I don’t mind that it is slightly toxic in that case.


What I use:

Secret PH Balanced Shower Fresh4


Tom’s of Maine Aluminum-Free Lavender Deodorant1 

Possible replacements:

Homemade or continuing with Tom’s – 0 or 1

My thoughts on antiperspirant are this: There is likely no such thing as a non-toxic antiperspirant, so I’d better get used to sweating, and why shouldn’t I? Sweating is what we were meant to do. Synthetic fragrances are also quite toxic, so I will also have to get used to a more “natural” smell. I don’t think this means smelling like a hippie – I just don’t smell like I am wearing perfume, which is a good thing, especially since heavy scents now give me a headache. I can even get away with wearing the Tom’s a few days in a row without showering as long as I give my armpits a good scrub.


I don’t wear any. Well, that was easy! But for those of you that do, I think there is a pretty good list of alternatives on the Skin Deep website.

I also intend to find a safe way to dispose of my nail polish, but I am going to wait until the summer time to see how strong the temptation to paint my piggies is – depending on the strength of my desire to decorate my tootsies, I may keep a few colors around for limited use.

If you haven’t noticed, I have a lot of job duplicates – two body soaps, two shampoos, two deodorants…this is because, for awhile, I used my cleanliness necessities as an excuse to shop. “Well, it’s not like I’m cluttering up my house with more stuff…and I need this to clean my hair!” I have since stopped buying such things, and even though I foisted some of my shampoos off on my sister, I am still drowning in products. This, and I have also started trying to use less of each to stop being so wasteful. As much as I’d like all of this out of my apartment now (seriously, our medicine cabinet is dangerously full), I take comfort in the fact that I am no longer bringing anything new in and I have ideas for less toxic and less wasteful alternatives once I do run out. Decluttering and cutting down on your waste is definitely a process!

I encourage you to examine the products you use day-to-day using Skin Deep. Just make sure you close your jaw every once in awhile to keep your mouth from drying out!

10 Gift Ideas for People Trying to Simplify Their Lives

Back when I wrote one of my first “how-to” posts, I wrote about the need to “have the conversation about gifts.” Well, I’ve since realized that this is a difficult conversation to have and that the act giving and receiving gifts is something that is both an enjoyable tradition and something that is very unlikely to change any time soon (ha, like America’s other wasteful habits are likely to change soon…).

I decided that instead of saying NO GIFTS EVER, I would make a list of zero-or-less-waste gifts to act as a guideline for gift givers – as well as a reminder for myself.

Sand Beach - a great day trip from here!

Sand Beach – a great day trip from here!

10 Gift Ideas for People Trying to Simplify Their Lives

1. Gift cards: Alas, made of plastic and usually single-use, these appear at first to be the worst possible gift for a waste-conscious individual. However, there are ways to give gift cards without plastic – purchase online and print it out on paper or email it, for example – and I have recently learned of a way to recycle things like used-up gift cards and other plastic wallet-lingerers. With this in mind, gift cards are an excellent way to give experiences rather than things (restaurant, movie theater, etc.) or to give the recipient the option of choosing items that he/she will actually use (grocery store, iTunes, bookstores, etc.).

2. Edibles/drinkables/other consumables: The great thing about consumables is that they do not clutter a recipients house for long, especially if it’s beer or wine; my brother-in-law, beer expert, is a champion of giving delicious beers as gifts. Similarly, Sean’s mom often gives us locally purchased goodies and soaps, which we love to receive and certainly use, and there is the added benefit that bulk soap usually comes in paper. Other great consumable gifts include homemade goodies like pickles and pancake mixes – just remember to package them in something reusable. Apparently, back in the day when everybody canned, it was a huge faux pas to not return a canning jar to the person who gifted you the canned goods. So maybe your giftee will use up what you give them and return the jar with something else in it – wouldn’t that be a great tradition?

3. Experiences: Take your gift recipient on a trip – go to the museum, the beach, the park, the moon, a mountain, wherever. You can make an hour, day, or weekend of it! Last Saturday, Tony and Ariel graciously drove Sean and me to Acadia and we had a picnic in the springlike sunshine and took Oliver to the beach. Sure, it wasn’t a formal gift for any occasion, but it sure felt like it!

4. Coupons: I’m not talking about store coupons. I’m taking about coupons for your time. Offer to make your giftee dinner, do their laundry, watch their children, paint their front door, etc.

5. Necessities: What does the birthday girl really need? Just ask! The answer could range from a bottle of olive oil to help with a car payment, but this way you know you are getting them something that won’t be superfluous.

6. Digital subscriptions: Magazines and newspapers are great…but they do pose a cluttering problem. I am unlikely to re-read back issues of Climbing Magazine, and yet I have piles of them in my house. Of course, a digital subscription requires having a reader of some kind, so make sure you know what your recipient has.

7. Handmade items: I find it incredibly flattering to receive something that somebody put a lot of time and effort into – for example, my mom’s quilting and weaving projects. Obviously this is one to skip if you don’t feel particularly crafty, but handmade items can range from drawings to knitted items to rebar sculptures.

8. A meal out: I love to spend time with my friends, especially if it involves food. The meal and the price of the meal doesn’t matter; sometimes it feels great just to be treated, whether it’s a single cookie from the local bakery or a five-course meal at Primo (good god, can you imagine the deliciousness?).

9. Yourself: This is my favorite gift to receive. Like I said just above, I just like to spend time with people! Given my fairly busy work/school schedule and general daily isolation, I am usually overjoyed to see a friendly face.

10. Nothing: Not sure what to get your office mates or neighbors? Vague acquaintances? Don’t! Just wish a Happy Birthday or Merry Christmas and go on your way! Sometimes it feels special just to be acknowledged.

What kinds of gifts do you like to give/receive? Please add to my list in the comments below!

Winter in Maine

I am not going to lie and say that winter in Maine isn’t dreary. Even now we are still making our way out of the darkness; it snowed a good foot and a half this week, and that pile of initially fluffy fun is now heavy and flooding the streets as we get a little slightly-above-freezing rain.

Earlier this winter, as the ice began closing in the river.

Earlier this winter, as the ice began closing in the river.

In spite of this being a rather normal Maine winter – meaning crazy cold and quite snowy – I have walked to and from school nearly every day, and while I could complain about the lack of promptly-plowed sidewalks and the crazy motorists who could care less if they plowed me over on their quest to GET SOMEWHERE NOW!!!, instead I would like to celebrate the view that I see every day when I walk over the bridge onto Marsh Island.


On a slightly less cloudy day.

I’m guilty of only taking pictures on sunny days, which we were lucky to have a lot of this winter. Well, lucky as long as you consider the sun only, and not the bitter cold that always accompanies the winter sun.

The view from Webster Park in the slightly more icy middle of the winter.

The view from Webster Park in the slightly more icy middle of the winter.

The morning fog.

The morning fog.

On some mornings, fog fills the valley, covering the trees in a white rime that sparkles as the sun rises over the train trestle. It is an experience that cannot be contained in a photograph, and I feel so blessed to have experienced it so often this winter.

The river now - very little open water, but not for long!

The river now – very little open water, but not for long!

Sure, storms are an extreme nuisance, if not a safety hazard, but the sky is a different kind of blue in the winter after a storm. There is good to be found in everything.


The view from our front doorstep after the snowstorm.

We were lucky the power didn't go out!

We were lucky the power didn’t go out!

As much as I treasure the winter landscape, I am relishing in the signs of spring. We have had some warmer days, and our bird feeder has been swarmed in the past few weeks. It’s light after six now, and we have had some 40+ degree days (beach weather, to be exact). Soon it will be time to start the spring planting!

Looks just like a summer beach, right?

Looks just like a summer beach, right?

Pet Waste and Wastewater


I mentioned before in my “Unspeakables” post that we use wood pellet kitty litter in this house. I have seen it sold as both Feline Pine and Simply Pine (the latter is $2 cheaper), and it always comes in a big, thick plastic bag – darn! To my enjoyment, I recently discovered a product called Swheat Scoop, which is marketed as flushable and comes in a recyclable paper bag or box. I was initially really excited about the idea – I wouldn’t need plastic bags to scoop the poops into, and I could just flush it away. Problem solved!

Unfortunately things are never that simple. As far as the quality of the litter goes, my sister, having used both Swheat Scoop and Feline Pine, says that the Swheat Scoop tracks around the house even more than the sawdust from the wood pellets, and there is no pleasant pine smell to keep the eau de kitty poo from permeating the house. She just has easier access to the Swheat Scoop, so that is what she uses now.

Additionally, I remembered my field trips to wastewater treatment plants. When your sewage enters a wastewater treatment plant, is is first screened to remove the big solids – toilet paper chunks, flushable wipes, and tampons, to name some of the less gross ones (I dare you to ask a wastewater treatment plant worker what the weirdest thing they’ve seen in the screens is…although it’s more likely to make you sad than squeamish). These removed solids go into a truck that takes them to, go figure, a landfill.

Now, the Swheat Scoop supposedly disintegrates in the toilet (you must let it sit for 20 minutes before you flush it), which means it would likely pass the bar racks and enter the treatment system. There it poses more serious problems; wastewater systems are designed on fairly delicate balances of bacteria, which break down the waste as it moves through the system. I say delicate because introducing things like Drano can kill off the bacteria and make the system less effective, which can halt operations or increase the demand of toxic disinfecting chemicals (usually derivatives of chlorine). On the other hand, introducing things like the waste from your garbage disposal can cause a boom in bacterial growth. Good, right? Wrong. A boom in bacteria eventually leads to a catastrophic bust; after the surplus of “food” is consumed, the bugs begin to die off in droves, taking away from the recharge of the activated sludge or, again, increasing the chlorine demand.

I imagine that the wheat in the Swheat scoop might have a similar effect to the garbage disposal on the system, since it is technically a food byproduct, but I wasn’t really sold on staying with my seemingly more wasteful kitty litter until I received our town’s newsletter the other day. There was a section that read:

“Waste water systems operate 24-hours a day, 7-days a week – that is until an item that doesn’t belong makes its way into the system, clogging pipes and causing headaches for operators.

Perpetrators mucking up the system are known as “nondispersibles,” which currently means anything other than human waste and toilet paper that’s flushed down the toilet.

The waste water industry reference for dispersibility is two-ply toilet paper, which starts to break apart when the toilet is flushed and is indistinguishable in the waste water system in a matter of seconds.

Manufacturers label any product capable of making it through a home’s plumbing system as flushable. But in collection systems, treatment plants, and septic systems, nondispersibles clog pumps, pipes and valves; overwhelm screens and bar racks; and block sewer mains. They can cause sanitary sewer overflows and require extensive repairs and replacement of pumps, screens, and other equipment.” – The Orono Observer, March-April-May 2014

So, for now, we will be sticking with our wood pellet litter. We now have a little “holding tank” for the stuff we scoop out of the litter boxes so that we don’t have to use a new plastic bag each time. We are down to the last of our plastic bags from before we started refusing them, so we will probably switch to a liner-free holding system and dump it into our kitchen garbage before we take it to the curb. I’m not sure what we’re going to do about it when we stop using garbage liners…but you can rest assured that I will update you when we get there!

Traveling: Inherently Wasteful…Inherently Fun

This Spring break, I traveled to Blacksburg, VA (via Charlotte, NC) to visit my former roommate, Alexis, who is kicking butt in an English Master’s program at Virginia Tech. I hate to fly (I shake like a dog in a lightning storm the entire time, particularly if there is turbulence), but I love to visit new places, and in spite of the snowy weather that I brought with me, I had fun exploring the VT campus and eating my way through Blacksburg.

The face of VT

The face of VT

Star Hil Little Red RooStarr coffee milk stout...perhaps one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my body.

Star Hil Little Red RooStarr coffee milk stout…perhaps one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my body.

As an experiment, I decided to keep tabs of all of the trash that I generated while traveling from when I left Orono to when I returned to Lexington. On my way to Massachusetts, I stopped at the Natural Living Center to fill a sack with banana chips to snack on (I never eat full meals whilst traveling, which is a vestige of my emetophobia). I also stopped at Starbucks and filled Sean’s wonderful thermos with coffee to keep me awake during my 5-hour drive (bad idea – the caffeine, which I have mostly phased out of my diet, made me sick) and coerced the reluctant barista to also fill up my Nalgene with water. Awesome! I thought to myself. What a great zero waste start to my traveling!


Huckleberry, Alexis’s super adorable dog.

But as much as I felt like patting myself on the back, I was missing the biggest imprint of my journey – carbon. The drive to my sister’s is nearly 5 hours and sucked my gas tank dry. Then she had to drive two hours round trip to get me to the airport, where I hopped on a carbon-guzzling airplane and flew 700 miles to Charlotte, where Alexis picked me up and drove me 3 hours back to Blacksburg. Lather, rinse, repeat. Wow, that’s a lot of miles.

A pretty tree on one of the snowy days that I was there.

A pretty tree on one of the snowy days that I was there.

I started reading Plenty - a hilarious and informative book about eating locally – recently, and I had to pause for awhile after the first chapter because the author mentions footprint calculators. I had forgotten they existed! Curious how my new lifestyle has affected my ecological footprint, I happily googled off to click around on some footprint calculator websites. I have yet to find one that even allows for a zero-waste-style life (most assume you produce at least one full garbage can a week), but I did find myself stalling on the carbon-specific portion of the quiz. My air travel this (academic) year has included a trip to Arizona and a trip to Blacksburg, and my car travel has included more trips to and from Massachusetts than usual (since my sister and brother-in-law live there now). So in spite of my efforts to reduce my waste and the fact that I do not drive my car more than once every two weeks, I’m still stomping down my huge feet on our beautiful planet.

This is where I have trouble reconciling my desire to experience the world and to simultaneously save it (save being a relative term – I am not delusional enough to think that I can single-handedly save the earth, no matter what kind of stories I wrote as a kid). I think that cultivating deep compassion for the earth involves seeing as much of it as you can, and not just through National Geographic and Planet Earth. Humans are visceral beings; to care, we must see, feel, hear, smell, touch, and aside from quitting our jobs and departing on foot or in canoe, to travel, we must consume fossil fuels. I have no good answer for this. Neither does Bea Johnson (her family still travels to Paris yearly to visit her parents, an act which apparently gathers a lot of criticism).

A vegetarian gyro that rocked my socks...

A vegetarian gyro that rocked my socks…

There are, however, a few ways that you can keep your travel footprint smaller and more efficient. It involves some planning ahead, some fancy gadgets (yep, I have a smartphone, and I’m…not proud of it), and a willingness to speak out.

But before I get to that, here is the list of my traveling waste:

  • Teabag and teabag packaging (2 total)
  • Plastic medicine packaging (from my caffeine-induced illness)
  • Paper towels (8 total)
  • Sushi box (recycled) and 3 little packets (soy sauce, wasabi, ginger – the wasabi and ginger definitely could have been unpackaged, although at least in this case they left out the bit of plastic fake grass)
  • Mango candy bag (damn you, Trader Joe’s, and your at-the-register product placement!)
  • Plastic bag from grocery shopping (reused for dog poops)
  • Various food wastes from first night’s meal (composted)
  • Paper napkins (3 total)
  • Straws (2 total)
  • Candy wrapper from restaurant (2 total)
  • Paper napkin ring

Something that I noticed often while eating out was that waiters now bring water with a straw already in it, which means that the opportunity to refuse the straw is never presented to you – I learned after the first two incidences that I had to ask for “water, no straw.” I also could have avoided the paper napkins and napkin ring by refusing them before touching them and breaking out the furoshiki-wrapped set of utensils that I brought with me…but I also didn’t want all of Alexis’s friends to think I was insane. It’s no excuse, really, so here I will merely hang my head in shame.

The one restaurant where I managed to ask for no straw.

The one restaurant where I managed to ask for no straw. They have this great thing there called “luck of the draw” where you get a random beer for $2. I crapped out with lager (not my favorite), but Alexis and Ashley got some pretty tasty-looking brews.

Here are a few things you can do to keep your list of traveling waste short:

  • Make use of the Passbook (or similar?) app on your smartphone for your boarding pass – I loved this, since I tend to misplace papers or tuck away boarding passes and find myself desperately seeking them right before I have to hop on the plane. Losing my iPhone, on the other hand, is something I don’t intend to do, so I always knew where my boarding pass was. Plus, I had one less piece of paper to deal with when I was done traveling.
  • Pack (packaging-free, dry) snacks for your whole trip and avoid falling prey to flashy displays (but damn, those mango gummies were delicious)
  • Use. your. reusable. water. bottle. Seriously. No excuses. Unless you’re my dad, in which case your excuse is that your daughter stole yours.
  • Bring a thermos/travel mug for hot drinks. As much as my belly hated me, it was really helpful to be able to tote around some hot caffeine while I was traveling to keep my senses oiled.
  • Keep one of those super-compact reusable bags in your purse/luggage – you never know when you might need one, no matter how well you’ve planned ahead.
  • Bring your own utensils to restaurants that are likely to have paper napkins, plastic utensils, etc. It helps to not care what people think – any suggestions on how to do this are welcome.
  • Use hand dryers where available (I LOVE the Excel ones), and where they are not (surprisingly many places), use only ONE paper towel.
  • Refuse, refuse, refuse. With a smile and a thank you.
VT is really quite European/Hogwartsian.

VT is really quite European/Hogwartsian.

On a completely different note, if you ever happen to be in Blacksburg, I recommend the following places for some good eats (and libations):

How about you? Have you been on any trips recently? Planning any trips? Any tips for traveling with less waste?

(If you’re interested, last year’s spring break trip was to Spain: Part 1, Part 2).

Simplifying and Terracycle

As I cut down the number of possessions that clutter my life, I find myself tossing a lot of stuff that I should have dealt with a long time ago. For example, why, oh why, did I ever feel the need to save movie ticket stubs? Did I think I would forget that I saw the movie? Did I think that some day someone would hold a gun to my head and demand that I recount exactly what day of what month of what year I saw Fellowship of the Rings in theaters for the 6th time? Or, for example, did I need the pile of 5th and 6th place ribbons from horse shows in addition to the one or two blues that I’m actually proud of? (Honestly, some day I may even get rid of those since I have my memories – I don’t need a blue ribbon to remember how great it felt to have such a smooth ride).

The stark Maine winter landscape.

The stark Maine winter landscape.

My family seems to think I’m jettisoning everything that makes my life colorful. I don’t think this is true at all, but convincing people is hard because the feeling of living with less clutter is just that: a feeling. Being able to comfortably fit the entire wardrobe of two people into my grandfather’s old chest of drawers and our closet is freeing. Having ample storage in the kitchen and being able to find everything I need in order to happily cook is immensely satisfying. Spending more time playing with the kitties, exploring new hobbies, and enriching my relationship with Sean are far preferable to feeling like I need to do something already with the stuff that is pouring out of my “organizers” and collecting on the table.

Maybe it is drastic to donate, sell, repurpose, recycle, or trash a large percentage of my things. But I’m done being sentimental about things. This does not mean that I have lost my soul or my capacity to love. I am just redirecting that love. Now, don’t get me wrong – there are certain things, like the quilts and handwoven items that my mother has made for me, books that I cherish, art, and special gifts that will not join the stream of stuff leaving my house. This is about getting rid of things that I never use and have shallow, unfounded sentimental attachment to (something that comes along with the pack rat gene, I think).

Skiing in the university forest.

Skiing in the university forest.

The thing about decluttering is that it seems like an unending battle; it really comes down to restricting what enters your house. Breaking the shopping addiction and nipping retail therapy in the bud are two things that I am working on right now. Instead of wandering the aisles of Target when I’m feeling particularly empty, I throw myself out the door and get some fresh air. By the time I’m done with my walk/skiing jaunt/what have you, I’ve forgotten all about Target.

Now, there is a particular danger when talking about simplification that I have noticed in many texts on the subject and that I fear could be an interpretation of my own writing. By writing about simplifying and waxing poetic about how much it frees up our lives, we find ourselves portraying living with less as something quaint when the reality is that most of the world must live with less. The idea of too much stuff is truly a first world problem, but here’s the big catch: what if the first world starts living with less on purpose? What if we set the standard of consuming less so that the countries that feel the need to “Americanize” and join our consumptive culture can focus instead on developing a more stable, sustainable base to grow on.

Even in my own interactions with people, I have observed a tendency to crave things. I can pick out two people in my mind who, when I knew them, lived paycheck-to-paycheck (or unemployment check), barely scraping by, living on the cheapest food they could find…yet somehow they felt the need to take that paycheck and squeeze it into a brand new car, a pile of stuff from Goodwill that would languish in the closet, a brand new stereo system when their existing one worked just fine, new clothes when their wardrobes were already overflowing, and more. While I cannot even begin to understand the psychology behind this compulsive need to amass stuff, I can wager that the pressure to consume, to own, contributes to these actions.

There's a light at the end of the...field.

There’s a light at the end of the…field.

So I urge you to consider what you truly need in order to live a comfortable life. Consider what is important to you, not for tenuously sentimental reasons, but for the health of your core being. Get rid of anything that doesn’t have a place in your heart, body, or mind so that you have more time and more space to allow your passions to grow.

For me, one of my core needs is to feel like I am not befouling the earth, hence my continuing forays into zero waste. I have drastically reduced how much I actually send to the landfill, but there are some things in my house that are longer-use items that I will have to dispose of eventually. Most of these are bathroom items – floss packages, toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, shampoo bottles, deodorant containers – that are either unrecyclable or only downcyclable. This is where Terracycle comes in.

I stole this graphic from Terracycle.

I stole this graphic from Terracycle.

Terracycle accepts difficult-to-recycle and unrecyclable items and turns them into something new. Depending on how much waste you send them, they award you points that you can use to purchase upcycled products or to donate to non-profit organizations. There are many “brigades,” including the one pictured above. I am excited to collect our bathroom things and send them off to be recycled rather than to be lost in the “zero sort” stream (I really don’t trust our recycling program in Orono) or sent to the landfill.

This also opens up options to people who aren’t willing to switch to tooth powder or baking soda deodorant (although considering the toxicity of the things you use day-to-day is another thing entirely – click the link to search your products for health hazards). I’m particularly excited about the cheese packaging brigade, because I love cheese and have yet to find a source of non-packaged cheese in the area (even the farmer’s market has packaged cheese…boo).

This is what I want you to do: Really consider everything you put in the trash. Give the brigades a good look-over; could you send it in to Terracycle? Could you find a replacement so that you don’t have to toss it the next time? Can you compost it? Can you do without it in the future? You’ll amaze yourself with what you find.

(A note about Terracycle: While I think it is great that they find alternative uses for these things, I still think that it should be a last resort for things that are otherwise landfill-bound. I will use them until I can find alternatives for the waste I am generating.)